Sochi Winter Olympics in Costume: Figure Skating

Olympic costumes are often tediously predictable. Costumes highlight nationality and athleticism, with skin-tight blues and reds typically dominating the Olympic wardrobe. Nationality is typically reduced to the colours of the flag, with perhaps only token acknowledgement of other aspects of cultural identity.

The Olympics aspire to be a ‘great equalizer; that is, in the sporting arena, each competitor is said to be judged on performance alone rather than on traits such as ethnicity, gender, and class.’ However, as Jackie Hogan observes, the Olympics ‘serve to reinforce these inequalities’ with overt displays of nationalistism, not least in competitors’ costumes. Flaglike costumes reinforce a contradiction between the IOC’s values of ‘peace and equality’ and the fierce patriotism of participants and spectators. [1]

It is perhaps for this reason that costumes for the Sochi Winter Olympics present more subtle displays of national identity than have been seen at previous events. Attempts have been made to tone down the overt presence of flag symbolism. Royal blues and scarlet reds have been darkened to navy and burgundy. Even so, flags and their motifs remain a dominant feature. The colours may have been given a whitewashed appearance, but stars and stripes are still prominent on the sleeves of Jamie Anderson, winner of the gold medal for slopestyle snowboarding, and her British competitor, Jenny Jones, bore slices of the Union Jack.

Jamie Anderson, winner of the gold medal for slopestyle snowboarding, wears stars and stripes on her sleves, but the blue and red of the American flag are subdued.

Jamie Anderson, winner of the gold medal for slopestyle snowboarding, wears stars and stripes on her sleeves, but the blue and red of the American flag are subdued.

One sport is an exception: figure skating. At the team event held this weekend, there was no hint of a flag on the ice rink. Nationality was present in the choice of costume, but unlike in other events, it was expressed via cultural heritage rather than elements appropriated from the flag. Cathy Reed of Japan expressed her nationality with a costume loosely based on a Geisha’s kimono, and in doing so made reference to a long cultural history of performance arts.

Cathy Reed Sochi

Brother and sister duo, Cathy and Chris Reed, representing Japan in the team figure skating. Cathy Reed’s costume reflects cultural heritage, incorporating elements of a Geisha’s kimono.

Guinard & Fabbri made an indirect reference to their home country of Italy, dressed as Romeo and Juliet, but this reference felt incidental. More so than nationality, these costumes provoked connotations of romance and storytelling. They were theatrical costumes, and presented the display as a performance rather than a sport. Costumes like these, which borrow from fiction, draw skating into the realms of fantasy and storytelling, where anything is possible.  They fictionalise the event, presenting the skaters as characters in a play.

Guinard & Fabbri Sochi

Guinard & Fabbri of Italy, costumed as Romeo and Juliet.

The young star of the winning Russian team was Julia Lipnitskaia, who performed to the theme from Spielberg’s holocaust film, Schindler’s List.  Lipnitskaia was costumed in a short red dress, styled to resemble the red coat worn in the film by a Polish holocaust victim. For those familiar with the film, this red costume connotes youth and innocence (Lipnitskaia is 15 years old). It is also a carefully calculated means of ensuring that she stands out from the crowd. Spielberg’s use of a red coat, in a film that was otherwise black and white, makes the events of the holocaust more tangible by focusing on the fate of a single child. The red coat ensures that we will pick the girl out from the crowd (first, in a crowd of passers-by, and later conspicuous in her absence when the coat is seen in a pile of abandoned clothes). Lipnitskaia’s red dress achieved the same. Her performance was the highlight of the event: her diminutive stature, enhanced by the red dress, set her physically and emotionally apart from her competitors.


Julia Lipnitskaia, costumed to resemble the girl in the red coat in Speilberg’s Schindler’s List

What all of these costumes suggest is that figure skating is more about culture than athleticism. It is an art, descended from theatrical and dance performances. Even in this fiercely patriotic competition, cultural heritage is valued over and above the nationality of the athletes.

[1] Jacki Hogan, ‘Staging The Nation: Gendered and Ethnicized Discourses of National Identity in Olympic Opening Ceremonies,’ Journal of Sport and Social Issues Vol. 27, No. 2 (2003), pp. 100-123.

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